IF THE permasmiling Ellie Kemper seems made for the title role in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, well, it’s actually the other way around.
Legend has it that a top NBC exec was so impressed by Ellie Kemper’s performances as ditzy Erin in the American version of The Office and prim wife Becca in Bridesmaids that he convinced the Goddess of Sitcoms, Tina Fey, to develop a show especially for her.
We don’t think he expected a series about a girl who’s rescued from a cult leader after living in an underground bunker for 15 years, then lives with a flamboyant black actor while she creates a new life in New York.
But like it’s equally wild theme tune, it’s crazy enough to work.
“Everything happened fairly smoothly after The Office finished up in 2013,” Kemper recalls.
“When it ended, I knew I had something to go on to.
“That was actually a pilot that didn’t get commissioned, but as soon as I found that out, that’s when I started having conversations with Tina and Robert [Carlock, her writing partner].
“I was very lucky with the timings.”
In a hotel suite in London, looking every bit as pristine and beautiful as the five-star suite in which she sits, it’s endearing that she doesn’t excuse away this success.
It’s not from a sense of entitlement, though detractors will be quick to point to her multi-million dollar family of financiers in Missouri.
In fact, it’s because she’s already paid her dues.
Years before appearing in The Office, she interned for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, where she met her now-husband Michael Koman.
She wrote parody articles for The Onion (‘Grapes Big Hit At Area Picnic’), and auditioned for shows like Saturday Night Live and Parks & Recreation, before finally getting her break when she joined The Office halfway through its run, in 2009.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which now airs on streaming site Netflix (the second series will be launched in April), is a significant step for Ellie, 35, not least because she goes from being a cast member to taking the title role.
What were the main differences she found?
“Going into it, I didn’t think there would be too much difference, but of course there was necessarily more responsibility and a greater workload,” she says.
“But the show is an ensemble show: you have everyone from Jane Krakowski to Carole Kane in it so I didn’t feel as much pressure as I could have.
“From a strictly work point of view, it’s better,” Kemper continues.
“There’s more hours to do in the day, which is nice because I feel like there’s less waiting and I get to be in more scenes.
“The alternative is sitting in a dark room for hours. Which actually sounds like the bunker.”
But not that the bunker was all bad — her cult leader was Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, coincidentally her former drama teacher.
“I was very nervous during that because I felt like we were back at school and he was my teacher and I was going to get a bad grade,” she smiles.
“But he couldn’t be lovelier. A lot of people in my high school tried out for different projects and he gave everyone his time.
“He came to my first improv show in LA when he was in Mad Men.
“He’s a good person.”
Don Draper isn’t the only Hollywood heartthrob with whom she’s shared credits — she also formed a working relationship with Irish actor Chris O’Dowd during the making of Bridesmaids.
But Kemper’s initial recollection of O’Dowd isn’t particularly pleasant, she explains.
Not because of him, she hastens to add, but because of the situation they were in.
“After the Bridesmaids auditions and before we began shooting, all the cast had improv sessions together. That was where Chris and I met and hung out the most, because we weren’t in too many scenes together in the movie. And he’s nothing but lovely.
“But my mind was elsewhere completely because it was the most intimidating thing. [Director] Paul Feig was watching, and I had to step up to Kristen Wiig in improv!
On top of that, I didn’t even know if I was still auditioning.
In the breaks Rose Byrne and I would whisper to each other and try to figure out if we had the parts.
“In retrospect I can say it was fun, because now I realise we had the roles, and we were just coming up with new ideas.”
Hindsight also informs us that it was these sessions and the off-script tone of the movie that led to its considerable impact.
With a $288m (€260m) box office by the end of the year, it was 2011’s highest-earning release if franchises, cartoons and superheroes are removed from the equation, as we often wish they were.
It earned two Oscar nominations, made a household name of Chris O’Dowd, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, and reminded Hollywood execs that, unlike its boardrooms, society’s make-up isn’t 80% white men and 20% others.
“It did something very practical. It demonstrated to studios that you can make a big-budget movie that has all women and it will still make money,” she reflects. “I think that was the great take-away from Bridesmaids.
“We could point to it and show you can take a group of — not nobodies, but we weren’t exactly movie stars — and boys will still come to see it.
“Now studios are putting more money behind films like that.”
WITH the likes of 30 Rock the first rumblings of this millennial movement, Bridesmaids led to a seismic shift: we’re now offered an avalanche of female-led comedy from Girls to Pitch Perfect to Spy to Broad City to Obvious Child.
The downside? It means that any such offering is framed in the look-a-woman-being-funny context.
Says Kemper: “I’m a big fan of [sketch show queen] Amy Schumer’s, and she does a lot about women in the real world and women in comedy — they’re the sketches that get talked about the most.
“She covers lots of other ground too, and I love watching her show for all the other stuff the most, but she says she does the women’s stuff to get people’s attention, and then they’ll listen to what else she has to say.
“I feel that’s a smart tactic.”
For her own part, Kemper is leading by example, proving there’s space at the top for funny, sweet women.
In addition to the second series of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, she’ll have a voiceover role in next year’s The Secret Life of Pets alongside Louis CK.
As to whether her former co-stars in The Office will make like a boyband and reform, she’s ruled it out for the moment.
“That would be nice on a personal level,” she replies encouragingly. “But no!”